Palestinians Must Be Free

Ignore the smoke screen thrown up by Israel and its apologists. The real reason for the lack of an enduring Mideast peace deal is the Israeli occupation.


Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon recently penned an article for Foreign Policy that perniciously distorts the Palestinian commitment to a lasting peace, and misrepresents our sincere efforts to find a diplomatic solution to this conflict. Let me correct the record.

Ya’alon’s inflammatory rhetoric is designed to disguise the simple truth that the conflict between Israel and the Arab and Muslim worlds is the result of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Arab territory, and the subsequent denial of equality and liberty to the people of our region.

The simple and overriding truth is this: Palestinians must be free. This overriding moral prerogative remains the driving force for every aspect of Palestinian political, social, cultural, and artistic expression. It is why the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was created, and it remains the raison d’etre for every one of our efforts.

There is nothing peculiar or unique about the Palestinian drive for liberty in our own land — the land of our fathers, grandfathers, and their grandfathers — living side by side with a secure Israel. The basic human impulse for freedom is shared by every man, woman, and child around the globe. This is why the Palestinian struggle for freedom has become so iconic throughout the world for those concerned with justice and civil rights. From Brazil to Turkey, from Indonesia to South Africa, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Kingdom, Palestinians stand as an icon for the responsibility of each of us to work for the freedom of any who remain oppressed.

This is true here in the United States as well — a nation founded on the ethos of freedom and liberty. In this respect alone, Palestinians and Americans share an often unspoken but unbreakable bond.

The technocratic language of negotiations can make even a policy wonk yawn. But this jargon of the peace process does more than bore readers — it obfuscates the most salient facts about our drive for independence. The Palestinian goal is to be free; free to live in our own country, free to build where we want, free to travel wherever and whenever we want, free to only pay taxes to a government chosen by us and that represents us and our interests, free to not worry every day and every minute about our security and the security of our children. This week’s report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel documenting Israel’s detention of over 1,000 Palestinian children from East Jerusalem this year alone cannot but break the heart of any parent, and reinforces the urgency of our struggle.

Perhaps because our cause is so universal, those opposing our freedom have concentrated their efforts on misdirection — especially in the United States, whose role remains critical in ensuring a speedy and peaceful end to the occupation. Americans are told by Israeli officials and their apologists that Israel would be happy to provide Palestinians their freedom but that Palestinians themselves have rejected "generous" offers for their own liberty.

The truth is not quite so remarkable.

At Camp David in 2000, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an unwritten offer that would have kept Palestinian airspace, the electromagnetic sphere, international crossing points, and water resources under Israeli control. The "Barak Offer" called for a land swap that would have traded land on a 9 to 1 ratio in favor of Israel and failed to provide an acceptable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem and Jerusalem, two fundamental issues for Palestinians. It also would have allowed Israel to keep a military presence in the future Palestinian state. The only written proposal at Camp David was submitted by the Palestinians, regarding the refugee issue; the Israelis never responded.

At Camp David, Palestinians were offered a state with no sovereignty, no capital in Jerusalem, and no just solution to the refugee problem. This is the reason that talks failed — not because of Palestinian intransigence or rejectionism, as has become the standard narrative in mainstream American political and media discourse.

The next round of serious talks, between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, did not produce an "Olmert Offer," although the two leaders discussed all permanent status issues extensively.

Toward the end of their meetings, Olmert showed President Abbas a map of proposed land swaps to compensate for land that Israel wanted to annex — about 6.8 percent of the West Bank — as part of an agreement. The Palestinians requested that Olmert put forth a written proposal, and also submitted 14 questions to the Israelis seeking clarifications on important issues on questions pertaining to the permanent status issues. Again, the Israelis never responded to either request. Contacts then broke down after Israel’s savage attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008, and Olmert subsequently resigned after being implicated in a corruption scandal.

Over the past 10 months, Palestinians have, either directly or, through the United States, made offers and submitted ideas to the Israelis on every one of the permanent status issues. The Palestinians did not sit around and wait for the so-called moratorium to lapse, as some claim. Over the past four months of indirect talks and the one month of direct negotiations — all hosted by the Obama administration — Israel has refused to respond to Palestinian and U.S. urging to engage on the core issues, such as the future of Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security and water issues. This has been the sad reality since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister 20 months ago.

The topic of settlement construction is also rife with misunderstanding and deliberate distortion. Israeli leaders have recently argued that settlements only occupy 1.7 percent of Palestinian territory, yet the military infrastructure for supporting these settlers, which includes walls, checkpoints, and "Israeli-only" roads, keeps over 82 percent of the West Bank out of Palestinian hands.

Even the question of recognition has become a red herring. The PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist within its 1967 borders in 1988, and has repeatedly restated its position on this matter ever since. The PLO even convened its parliament in exile in 1998 to reiterate this acceptance in the presence of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. To this day, our recognition of Israel remains unreciprocated by the Israeli Knesset or the ruling Likud party.

Palestinians, however, are not passive victims. Our rights are not subject to or conditional on Israeli recognition or acceptance of them. Our rights to be free and to live in equality in our own homeland and our own state are inalienable. We appreciate the United States’ continued efforts to end the occupation that began in 1967, but we are not sitting still waiting for freedom to be delivered to us.

To achieve our aims, we are entitled to resort to all peaceful, nonviolent, and legal means. This includes, but is not limited to, taking our case to the United Nations and other international forums, calling on other countries to recognize a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, and working with the international community to realize Palestinian national rights of self-determination and statehood.

The irony for Israel is that its best guarantee for security and survival is not the continued humiliation and subjugation of the Palestinian people, but rather our freedom and independence. Israel’s blinkered policies will never convince Palestinians to give up their legitimate right to liberty, and it is only true freedom that can ultimately make for the best neighbors.

<p class="MsoNormal"> Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat is the chief representative of the general delegation of the PLO to the United States. </p>